Zero to Profitable – LiberWriter Lessons Learned

Here's how I have created the beginnings of a profitable Kindle formatting and conversion service, LiberWriter, from scratch.

Last Winter, I read one of the best business books I have read in a long time, Rob Walling's Start Small, Stay Small:

Rather than being a "big idea" book that includes one big idea and lots of stories to support it, it's a very practical book on how to go about creating a small online business. I've always been someone who loves to build things, from various open source projects, to diverse web sites that people have found valuable.  However, I am not a "business guy".  I'm not that good at making money, so the simple approach in the book is really better for people like me: make something and sell it.  Advertising can certainly work, but it's so much harder to figure out the numbers compared with a product, where you can compare the cost of providing the product to the price people will pay for it.  And that's just one thing; the book has tons of ideas about practical ways of going about putting together a profitable small online business.  It's not a "get rich quick" book – part of the idea is that if you are looking at a niche that is fairly small, it will simply not be of interest to larger companies, so you aren't going to get outspent and outcompeted by them.

In any event, though, at about the same time I read the book, I was poking around looking at Amazon's KDP, which allows you to self publish for the Kindle, and noticing how difficult the process is.  The native format of Amazon's books is HTML with several XML files thrown in for good measure.  Now, for someone technical, that's certainly not an insurmountable obstacle, but for many authors, it's a very unpleasant prospect.  Granted, you can also manipulate a Word file to make it suitable for the KDP, but even that is something that many people dont' find to be a productive use of their time.  They're authors, and they want to write.

Having spotted a niche that looked interesting – I love to read, and I like the idea of helping out authors – I discarded the book idea I was looking at myself and did some writing of my own: source code for a project that would automate the process of converting and formatting Kindle books.

The core of the system was a fun evenings/weekends project, and soon it was able to produce pretty good books.  After "inflicting" the beta version of the system on several people, such as Rich Bowen (thanks again, Rich!), I got it beat into shape and started accepting the first paying customers.  It's very exciting to have those first few people pay for something you made – it's a great feeling!

Initially, my thought was to sell it as a way to write books directly for the Kindle, however, it soon became evident that 99% of people have already written their books with Microsoft Word, so what they were really interested in was a conversion and formatting system that would take a Word document, poke and prod, stitch and stretch it some, and output a nice looking book for the Kindle.

One of the lessons from Rob's book was that stuff doesn't have to be perfect if it works.  Initially, I had people putting their word documents into LiberWriter not with the smooth(ish) upload process we have now, but by cutting and pasting in their documents!  As a computer guy, doing things in a hacky way is sometimes very unpleasant, but you know what?  It worked, and it was easy for people to handle, so I ran with it until a better system was in place.

Writing code was the easy part, and definitely within my "comfort zone".  Some of the other things I've had to do have been much more difficult, and as a consequence, more of a learning experience.

For instance, I realized early on that the process would never be 100% automatic, so I'd have to get some people to work on the books, with the idea being to provide them tools to make the process as simple, quick, and easy as possible.  I'm always on the lookout for new things to script within the system.

However, need people it does, and finding them and engaging them has been a difficult process.  As per the book's suggestion, I've primarily used oDesk to find contractors, and have grardually begun to find some people who work really well. It has taken time, and has not been easy, though.  I'm not an introvert, but in some ways I'm happiest when doing my own thing.  Being the 'boss' is new.  One of the tricky aspects of oDesk is that pretty much any job posting gets tons of responses, some of them from people who appear to have barely read the posting.  One trick I learned is to request that the potential contractor creates an account with LiberWriter.  Very simple and not a waste of time, and yet a majority of applicants ignored the request.

Through most of the spring and summer, LiberWriter remained something strictly for the evenings and weekends, as I was busy with client work during the days, and with my daughter during the afternoons, but as August rolled around, I found some more time on my hands, and really started investing more energy in LiberWriter.  It has been very rewarding to see a corresponding increase in the number of customers.  We (at this point, between myself and the contractors, LiberWriter is a group, and no longer "I") also raised prices – another valuable piece of advice from the book, and… pretty much anyone who writes for people jumping into online businesses.  As tech people, we often tend to aim low in terms of prices.  Indeed, soonish, prices will likely go up again.

Another challenge has been turning it as much as possible into a "productized service".  Since Kindle books are fairly simple in what you can do with them, as long as you don't get too fancy, it's possible to automate *most* things, but not everything, so it's not just a product that people buy and it works and that's that; there's a human element involved, which means more communication, and more potential for things to go off the rails.  I've been investing time in automating the workflow of the system, but have a lot more to do on that front.  Also, one of the things our customers love about the service is being able to deal with "real people", something that is more difficult at Amazon.  That's good for us in one way, but in the future, it will be critical to document things and make them as simple as possible to avoid generating unneccessary support requests, as it can easily take up a lot of time.

Indeed, because LiberWriter does attract customers who are often not all that technical, making the user experience as easy and straightforward for them as possible (and then some) is extremely important.  It can be exasperating once in a while, but I do my best to channel any frustrated energy on my part into making the site ever easier and ever more straightforward.  In other words, instead of "how the heck do they not get that?!" it's "what can I do to make sure the tools and information they need are even easier for them to get?".  There's lots to do on that front, but on the whole it's actually part of the project that I've grown to like a lot.  Rather than dealing with other techies like myself, our customers are people who really benefit from what we offer because we can save them so much time and frustration.

Marketing the system is fun, but another area where I have a lot to learn: I'm not a natural when it comes to marketing or selling.  One thing that has worked well so far is finding forums where your target users hang out, and then…. spam them as often as possible?  No way!  Be yourself, and provide genuine help and value to people in the forums.  By being on the level, and not trying to sell! sell! sell! people are friendlier and more receptive to your message.  It can be time consuming, but I suppose it's the sort of thing where taking the wrong short cut could be very detrimental over the long haul.

Without disclosing too much, I don't think I'll ever get rich from LiberWriter, but it is incredibly satisfying to have created and marketed a product of my own that goes beyond just selling my own time.  LiberWriter doesn't bring in as much as consulting, yet, but it feels like much more of an investment, something that will have some momentum of its own, and of course it has been an incredible learning experience.  I like programming, but being outside of my "comfort zone", doing stuff that's new and challenging is also a very positive part of the project.  If things continue to grow the way they have been, I could envision depending on LiberWriter as my primary source of income in the very near future.  That's a bit of a jump into the unknown in some ways, but I'd love it.  I have worked very hard on it lately, and one of the things I am enjoying is always having new ideas about how to improve every aspect of the system, from customer service to the mechanics of the conversion process, to tracking the finances.  In some ways it's tiring because I'm thinking about it *all* the time, but it's that "good kind of tired".

It's been a tumultous summer, and in the past few weeks we (well, my wife much more than me!) had a new baby boy, and bought a house here in Padova.  To keep things interesting for the future, I applied to the Startup Chile program with LiberWriter.  I suspect they're more interested in startups with high growth potential, but I feel strongly that the approach outlined in Rob's book is one that people outside of Silicon Valley, without easy access to venture capital and the huge talent pool that area has, should consider, rather than trying to copy what makes Silicon Valley work like it does. 

Whether I get accepted or not, LiberWriter will continue to grow, and, I sincerely hope, thrive.  A big thanks to all our customers, and to my wife Ilenia, and children, Helen and Daniel for tollerating all the time I spend with the computer.

I wrestled a bit with writing this post, as I don't want to "jinx things", and I've only just got a small taste of "success", but I've always enjoyed reading about how "ordinary people" have managed to create their own small businesses, people like those behind Balsamiq, "Bingo Card Creator", and the like, and I figure that writing up my own experiences is a way of "paying it forward".

Pranks that are actually funny

I saw this link on Hacker News:

And couldn't help but thinking it was singularly unfunny.  He changed the guy's password – ha ha!

I'm sure most people can do better.  Here's one off the top of my head:

I was due to leave a company in a few days, prior to our move to Austria.  One of my colleagues in the programming department was tasked, in that period, with doing a bunch of work with Drupal, which he found singularly unpleasant and a pain in the neck to work with, which was compounded by the boss asking often about the status of the project.

My colleague tended to be an early riser and would get into the office to get some work done early, before it got noisy and people started hassling him about this, that or the other thing.

So on my soon-to-be-abandoned workstation, I set up a cron job that would, during those hours, randomly play a sound file I recorded while he was out, with my impression of a ghostly voice saying "druuuuuuuppaaaaaaallll".

He said it scared the pants off him the first couple of times it went off.

Why I prefer text to video

Videos are becoming more and more common on the internet, and for some things, like mentos and diet pepsi, they're hard to beat.  For things I'm seriously interested in, though, I prefer text.  Here's why:

  • Text goes at my speed.  I read quickly, and certainly faster than people can talk.  If I want to slow down and reread something, I can do that too.
  • Video, outside of actual video chats, is not interactive, so I don't get the benefits of being there, being able to interrupt, ask questions, and so on, that can make the 'in person' experience superior to just reading about something.
  • Text is searchable and indexable.  I can search within a page, and it's also more likely to be visible to search engines.
  • Text is easy to scan and glance at.
  • Given the ease of scanning text, it's also easier to filter: "is this something I want to invest more time in reading?".  In the time many videos use for people to simply introduce themselves, I could have already got an idea of a document is worth further perusal.
  • Text is easy to manipulate; cutting, pasting, quoting, etc… are all easy.
  • I don't have to put on headphones to read text if my wife is sleeping and I'm working late.
  • Text has good, and highly visible conventions (various headings and subheadings) for indicating subsections of a large document and what they may be about.

The Long Tail of the Clued In

Nearly three years ago, I wrote an article comparing Linode and Slicehost  having been first a Slicehost customer and then switched to Linode.  I would have been happy to stay with Slicehost, because they seemed like good people, but the 64bit vs 32bit issue, especially, tilted things very far in Linode's favor.  I thought the results were damning, and many people agreed with me, judging by the number of people clicking through the affiliate link I added later.   Based on some comments I read from this guy, who did a similar comparison, at I think that between the two of us we drove a lot of customers towards Linode.

Those articles have been out there for years, and are very easy to find with Google.  Curious to monitor the situation, a while ago, I set up a Twitter search feed for "Slicehost vs Linode" to see if people were talking about my article, and what other people were suggesting.  Overwhelmingly, those suggestions have been for Linode too.

Recently, Rackspace, who acquired Slicehost several years ago, announced they would be shutting down Slicehost and transitioning their customers to Rackspace:

And yet – people are still asking about Slicehost vs Linode on Twitter!

This is a useful reminder to me of how much, in our profession (and likely others, but I'm going with what I know) there is a core of the very clued in, who follow all the latest trends (and, negatively, fads too, at times), and are highly informed about everything that's going on.  Outside that, though, there is a pretty  long tail of people who are much less informed.  That's not a criticism of those people, either; perhaps they follow the latest developments in gold mining technology or something else that's much more relevant to their lives than "computer stuff".  It's something to keep in mind when marketing things – you think that everyone must have got the message, that no one could possibly not know what's going on, but it's actually quite difficult to really, reliably communicate something to a broad range of people.

Nokia -> Samsung

While I'm keenly interested in where mobile phone technology is going, I've never been much for living on the cutting edge of new and expensive phones.  I originally wrote Hecl for the humble Nokia 3100, and got a Nokia 6210 classic a few years ago.

For the first time in… probably something like 10 years, I got something that wasn't a Nokia: a new Samsung phone with Android.  I find it interesting because my own, small purchase appears to very closely mirror a broader trend in the market.

Since more or less the day it came out, Android jumped out at me as the place to be for an open source guy like me, and indeed, I'm quite happy with the phone, even though it's towards the low end of the Android range.  It does everything I need though – music, GPS, photos, email, Kindle, etc… etc….

To tell the truth, even though it's a cheaper phone (around 140 euros) than the Nokia, it does far more.  To some degree, that's of course to be expected, because the Nokia is at this point something like 3 years old, but going from the traditional rocker switch to a touch screen is really a night-and-day difference.  Many of you are probably saying "duh" at me and wondering what sort of luddite I am, but like I said, I started hacking on Android when it came out, but it took me a while to finally get one.

For a few things like making calls, the Nokia experience is in some ways still superior.  It's got 'call' buttons that you can hit and be talking to people in short order, but for most of the rest of the applications and software are just night and day better on the Android phone.  Gmail and Maps both strike me as something I could use more readily, rather than the hacky, slow Gmail that ships for Symbian.

And of course, with a slightly bigger screen, the web is also a bit better.

More than anything, it feels a lot more like a 'system' rather than a very, very solid core phone/sms system with some other junk bolted on. 

Summary: Built To Sell – Creating A Business That Can Thrive Without You

Many small business owners start a business with the idea of greater freedom in mind, yet end up chaining themselves to something that takes even more dedication than a regular job.

This book discusses the dos and don'ts that business owners need to be conscious of in order to create a business that is independent of its owner(s) in order to be able to sell it.  It does so in an easy to read format that's a bit of a gimmick – a fictional story illustrating the authors points.  Like most business books, the core idea isn't that hard to explain.  the book even includes a handy summary of the main points, which I'll paraphrase here:

  1. Focus on one thing you can do really well; even a service business can be 'productized' by creating a standard service that is the focus of the business.
  2. If your business revolves around one or two key clients, the risk inherent in that approach will lower the value or scare of potential buyers completely.
  3. Put a process in place, from sales through production.
  4. Don't "be" your company.  If the company is all about you, what's a potential buyer really getting if you sell it and leave?
  5. By focusing on products, you can charge up front rather than having poor cash flow.  If you pay people to work on a project for 3 months, and don't get paid for another month, you are, by the end, out 4 months salary while waiting for the payment.
  6. Say no to projects outside the scope of your business.  Only by focusing narrowly can you really excel at what you do.
  7. Spend time doing some research and calculations to estimate your potential market size; buyers will want to know this.
  8. If you have a business that has sales people, hire at least two so that they'll compete with one another.
  9. You want people who are good at selling products, not services; the latter will want to tweak your offering for each and every client, rather than selling it as-is and trying to find how it can meet the customer's needs that way, which is the best strategy for a product.
  10. If you were previously running a more 'generic' services company, and you switch to a more productized approach, be prepared to take a hit the year when you switch.
  11. Potential acquirers will want to see at least a couple of years of steady growth with the new model after making the switch.
  12. If you grow, you'll need a management team that can work without you.  Put an incentive system into place to reward their loyalty and results.
  13. When looking for an adviser to sell your company, aim for one where you will not be the largest or smallest client.
  14. If your adviser really only has one company in mind to sell yours to, they may be trying to sell you off cheap as a favor.
  15. Consider how much you could grow with the resources of a buyer.  Think big, and show them what kind of growth could happen with the right backing.
  16. Think and speak like a product business with 'customers' rather than 'clients'.
  17. Stock options are more complex than simpler options like bonuses that are paid out over a period of time, in terms of ways to give people an incentive to stay.

All in all, it was an enjoyable read, with solid points.  Even if you have no intention of selling your business, thinking of the business itself as a sort of "product" that is not dependent on you to work correctly is a sensible way to go about creating and growing a business.

He's certainly not, nor claims to be the first one to discuss this idea, and indeed references the well known E-Myth Revisited which focuses less on selling a business, and more on how to go about extricating you and your skills from the business.

Welton’s Law of Trite Business Advice


“For each and every bit of trite business advice, there is an equal and opposite bit of trite business advice”

"Fail fast" vs "be persistent"

"The first person to mention a number in a negotiation loses" vs "by saying a number, you frame the negotiations"

"Ideas don't matter" vs "the Number One startup killer … making a product for which there is no interesting market"

"Do something you're passionate about" vs "where there's muck, there's brass"

"Business plans are a waste of time" vs "failure to plan is planning to fail"

There's some valuable lesson behind all of these; I'm not saying these are bad advice.  What I'm saying is that if it were so easy, more people would be doing it successfully.  In reality, it's very difficult.

What are some of your favorite equal and opposite bits of business advice?

For sale:

I've been running at capacity for a while now, and something went "snap" recently, so I decided to take a few days off to clear my head a bit.  One of the things that came to mind is that I have too many 'side project' things.

I have had lots of fun (and a few flame wars) over the years with but I decided that it's another thing that should probably go, in order to simplify my life some.

It's a fairly popular site amongst programmers, as I think it's the best of the bunch in terms of guaging an admittedly tricky subject like language popularity, but there's lots of room to add to it.  I've got various ideas for whoever ends up buying it!

About money: it doesn't earn a lot.  Programmers, I think, are fairly blind to advertisements.  In the right hands I think it could do better, but most likely, it would work best as a bit of branding/advertising for your own business, much as TIOBE's index has spread their name far and wide.

For the time being, I'll accept private bids, and depending on how well that does or doesn't go, may consider using something like later.  Write me at if you're interested.  I'd be happy to share some numbers and information with you.  Perhaps I'll update this posting with them too.

What you get: everything!  Historicaly data, code, scripts to manage it, the domain.  It could use some cleaning up and love, but it does get the job done.

Running it just takes a few minutes a month, so I could hold on to it with no trouble, but I've decided that I want one less thing to think about.

Update: Some Numbers

In the last year, according to Google Analytics, the site had: 174,645 visits.

In the last month, it had 17,047 visits.

Revenue? Think of it as zero and you won't be too far off.  You would have to rework things significantly to make money from ads on it, I think.  

Hosting costs?  Not sure, particularly, it's on my Linode.  It utilizes Ruby on Rails, but creates static HTML pages, so it's fairly cheap.


You win some, you lose some

A bit more than a month ago, I had the random idea to try building and selling a web site, at the same time.  The idea was that the more people bid, and requested features, the more I'd work on it.

It didn't work out.  I got a bit of money out of it, but  certainly not enough to cover my time at an hourly rate.

I suppose the lesson is that a month simply isn't a lot of time for something to mature: it'd probably be best to work on something on and off for a year, give it some time for traffic to build up, and so on, if the goal is to sell it.

However, in any case, I think I'm pretty convinced that my next projects, like LiberWriter, will involve for-pay products.  At heart, I'm not really a business guy, so picking the simplest possible business model probably makes sense: you pay me, I give you something.

Hopefully, I'll be able to write about those in the "you win some column", but I thought I'd let people know how the experiment went.

Coming Soon: Easy Kindle Publishing with

The Kindle isn't the most beautiful device out there – it's not "beautiful", the keyboard takes away some elegance, but I'm absolutely smitten with mine.  I like to read, a lot, and being able to instantly beam books to my house is just fantastic.

Kindles and other devices like them are also changing the world of publishing, going from the known world of physical books that can't be easily copied to another information good like movies or songs with something of an uncertain future.

Yet they're also opening up many possibilities: thanks to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing program, it just got very easy to publish books to a platform that a lot of people regularly search for good things to read.  Once upon a time, "vanity publishing" was something done by those who simply wanted to see their names in print, but couldn't actually find a publisher, and thus carried some stigma.

Now, though, why not publish something you've always wanted to?  Granted, without an editor, and publisher to promote your work, you probably won't become rich or famous, but many people write for the enjoyment of doing so.  And who knows… there are already several cases of people publishing directly to the Kindle and making a decent income at it.

Indeed, I have several things I'm thinking of writing about that clicked when I found the Kindle publishing program.  Maybe now it's time to dust off some ideas I've had and start working on them a little bit at a time.

Then, of course, my geeky side took over and I started wondering how the mechanics of it actually work.

Messily, it turns out: the preferred format for Kindle authoring is variant of HTML that's not at all what we're used to in these days of ever more potent CSS.  The good side of it is that books mostly come out looking the same on the Kindle, and the end user can control how they want to visualize them.  The bad side of the system utilized is that there are a lot of tips and tricks and little things to know about the whole process that can be annoying even for someone who knows HTML pretty well.  For someone who just wants to write stuff and not worry about it, and who perhaps is not very familiar with HTML, the whole thing can be a huge mess and very frustrating.

Which of course looks like an interesting challenge.  I set out to work on several weeks ago, and it should be ready within the next week or two.  In short, it's a system that lets you concentrate on writing and, as much as possible, tries to get out of your way in order to let you concentrate on your content.  It is also targeted very specifically at the Kindle (for the time being at least), so as to really focus on making things work on that platform.  For instance, it can automatically generate a table of contents, a noted pain point in writing for the Kindle.  I have a number of other ideas up my sleeve too, that I'm excited to work on.

I'm also definitely abandoning the "let's release it for free, for fun, and see if I can find a way to make money later" model of many past projects, and treating it like a business.  I think the price I have in mind is very competitive, if you look at, for instance, conversion services that take word and spit out Kindle-specific HTML.

Anyway, have a look at the site and sign up if you're interested: as soon as it's ready, I'll email and let you know.  There'll be a somewhat limited trial version so that you can play around with it and see if you like it before buying the full version.